Practicing what they preach
Owners of legendary indie label Dischord celebrate 20 years of doing it their way
Can two guys make a living releasing their own and their buddies’ punk music? Can a record label survive without contracts with artists? Can that same label remain solvent when its franchise band, Fugazi, insists on charging only $5 for any show and absolutely won’t do interviews with mainstream, “corporate” magazines?
If the two guys are Ian McKaye and Jeff Nelson and the record company is famed Washington, D.C., underground punk label Dischord, then the answers to these questions are all, unequivocally, yes.
How do I know this? Because 2000 marked Dischord’s 20th anniversary of not only survival in a business known for treachery, but also survival on its own terms. Founded by McKaye and Nelson, musicians who played in an early D.C. punk band called the Teen Idles (and later Minor Threat), Dischord is now held up as the model for independent record labels.
McKaye and Nelson originally were inspired by then-LA-based underground punk label Dangerhouse Records and how it treated and nurtured the LA punk scene. They thought they could do the same for the many bands emerging on the D.C. scene and began working with friends to release their and their friends’ music (Dischord No. 1, Teen Idles’ Minor Disturbance EP, came out in December 1980).
But starting Dischord wasn’t some self-gratifying ego exercise. On the contrary, McKaye and Nelson believed that punk music could be associated with much more than absurd drunkenness, wrecking property, self-deprecations, sadistic behavior and social chaos in general—as the genre was disappointingly becoming in their eyes.
The label, (which now counts among its employees the two co-founders plus four other employees) promotes a more peaceful, communal and cerebral take on the original punk ethos. The punk icons are still anti-corporate, anti-music industry and anti-publicity—as they are all acutely aware of the many drawbacks and evils of their industry. This is why they practice such strategies as having only verbal contracts with artists, never charging more than $5 per person no matter how large the show, and playing gigs only when they want to do so or believe the cause is worthy. These are not typical record industry practices.
McKaye and Nelson are role models to kids and run their company with that in mind. They always speak and carry themselves with composure. Even with the on-stage fury of their music, the outbursts are controlled—and the bands watch out for the safety of their fans, like making sure females are not mistreated by rowdies and can venture wherever they like in the crowd. McKaye has been known to stop shows when mosh pits become violent, when people start to throw things at the band, or when property is being destroyed.
Also paramount in the young label’s success was the interest of British label Southern Studios, which had been releasing albums by the important Brit punk band Crass. Owner John Loder came aboard to help Dischord finance the release of Minor Threats’ debut 12-inch EP Out Of Step (Dischord No. 10), and they’ve been working together ever since.
The D.C. scene during the ‘80s was an incestual gathering of musicians and friends who usually played in several bands at once. Dischord itself couldn’t even keep all of them straight. Since many of these bands had become representative of the side of punk with which they didn’t want to associate, McKaye and Nelson began specializing in releasing more selective music produced with their shared philosophy and cerebral aesthetic. The two other members of Teen Idles went on to form other bands that released material through Dischord as well (Government Issue and Youth Brigade).
With this specialization, Dischord began to develop a distinctive sound. Bands like Minor Threat, Rites Of Spring, Soul Side, Dag Nasty and another McKaye band, Embrace, developed their own, unique punk sound that involved more of an experimental, thinking-man’s approach. Of course, epitomizing this indie rock/meandering jam band sound is the McKaye band that formed out the ashes of Minor Threat and Embrace, Fugazi (which includes former Rites Of Spring members Guy Picciotto and Brendan Canty). Bands also forming around the time of Fugazi (in the late ‘80s) that forged names for themselves were Shudder To Think, Jawbox, Nation Of Ulysses and Lungfish among others.
Toward the end of the last decade, however, the label found itself with only three bands: Fugazi, Bluetip and Lungfish. But once again the label is currently on the upswing with a 20th-anniversary compilation—Dischord No. 125 (due out in late summer 2001), in addition to a fresh Lungfish offering and a flock of new, experimental bands like Faraquet and Q And Not U. Each band has its own distinct sound within what has become a distinctly Dischord genre of punk/indie rock music.
The fuzzy, mantra-like repetitions of Lungfish’s “The Word” and “Shapes In Space,” both from their latest CD, Necrophones (Dischord No. 119), stand in stark contrast with other groups on the label. This four-piece likes to find its particular groove and then work it to the hypnotic hilt. Faraquet’s debut A View From a Tower (Dischord No. 122) employs a tempo-changing approach more akin to classic-rock trios or punk-rock Jethro Tull, maybe. Songs like “Cut Self Not,” with its brash energy, distortion flares and discordant bursts, and “The Fourth Introduction,” with its choppy and driving force, jerk the listener to attention.
Newest on the Dischord roster is DC quartet Q And Not U and its freshman opus No Kill No Beep Beep (Dischord No. 123). This quartet delivers a diverse punk tapestry as it dabbles in Bjorkish post-punk ("Y Plus the White Girl"), Cure-like late-'80s vibes ("Little Sparkee'") and straightforward grinding jams like “A Line in the Sand.” The album is playful at times and brooding at others, and listening to it is like taking a glittery punk roller coaster ride. Wheeeee!
Check out the entire Dischord lineup at www.dischord.com and catch Q And Not U at The Blue Room this Saturday, April 28. Ted Leo opens at 10:00 p.m. (+ guests). Tickets, as always, are $5.